Peter Verwer, leaving the Property Council after 32 years

29 May 2014 — Property Council chief executive Peter Verwer has had a huge influence on the property industry and the sustainable property sector – the latter, sometimes controversially so. Now after 32 years at the Property Council and 22 as its head, he’s heading to Singapore to head up another property investment behemoth that makes the Australian outfit look small. As he readies for the departure lounge we have a long and leisurely chat that spans his three decades in the one job, his views on politics, social media, sustainability, and the big question – why he’s stayed so long?

Ask Peter Verwer about politics. Among his many talents, the chief executive of the Property Council of Australia excels at politics.

More than ever right now, the sustainability industry is searching for a way to respond to the political wrecking ball that’s made a mockery of the call for a “level playing field” and flattening protection for climate and the environment, green businesses and even energy efficiency. Humane and humanitarian policies have also been trampled, under the logic, presumably, that these are usually – but not exclusively – supported by the same people.

But what does Mr Politics tell the people who are left behind? What do they make of the Australian landscape and what advice can he provide?

Verwer is fascinating to talk to at length.

On the eve of his departure for Singapore where he will head the Asia Pacific Real Estate Association, we spend several hours chatting, with a break for lunch and a phone appointment he’s booked. Verwer’s promised this will be a “colour” piece. And it’s why we talk and prod for so long. But let’s not be fooled. Above politics, Verwer is a master of self-discipline. He’s fastidiously self-controlled. So while there are revelations, there are also some questions left dangling, or subject to clever diversionary tactics, that though frustrating, are still entertaining.

On most issues though, Verwer is generous with this views. On politics, he’s optimistic. That’s not really surprising given that here is someone in the business of lobbying and who 22 years ago took on the challenge of turning around the performance, reputation and influence of an industry that was then known as little more than a bunch of self-seeking profiteers. Successfully, you could argue.

He’s also been credited with being one of the most important influences in the success of the sustainable property industry, though this too, along with other elements in the Verwer compendium, is not without controversy.

So what does he think of the mess that’s emerged on the political landscape in recent times?

Ideas, politics and influence

Verwer is well known – and sometimes strikes fear in others – for the arsenal of ideas, references and quotes he can draw on to make a devastating point, or to flummox an opponent.

“Politics is just the means to implementing ideas,” he says, “and these days a less and less effective one.” This is interesting, since politics is where he likes to play, to prosecute his agenda on behalf of his members.

“These days a mandate needs to be achieved outside politics. And politicians increasingly need a mandate to be forged for them – such as social justice – or for organisations to give them permission to act, to be courageous.

“That’s the nature of the 24-hour media cycle.”

Most of Australia’s politicians might be “totally dedicated to improving the nation”, he says, “but in the future their courage will derive from a mandate which is forged by outside the professional political arena.”

From where in particular?

From the main organisational groups that represent sectional interests in Australia, he says – such as ACOS, the Business Council, the Property Council, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the National Growth Areas Alliance, architects, engineers and the Minerals Council, he says.

These will band together, he says. “There will be range of alliances.”

Collaboration

Alliance has been key to the Property Council’s tactics, he says.

Over the years it’s collaborated on specific campaigns with social justice advocates such as the Australian Council of Social Services, with unions and with environmental organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Total Environment Centre.

Scott Ludlam

Another important collaboration has been with The Greens, in particular with Scott Ludlam in Western Australia, to produce a plan for higher densities of development along the transport routes in Perth, along similar lines to the Rob Adams plan developed for Melbourne.

“We produced that publication and it was launched by [Greens Leader] Christine Milne,” Verwer says.

“It was a perfect example there of quite different voices harmonised on that issue – while we still disagree on many things.

“It means it’s more likely you will see the angelic side of a particular group than always seeing them as vile, and that’s the basis of mature discussion.

“It’s a mark of maturity to be able to have discussion and dialogue where you agree on some issues and disagree on others without the dialogue descending into rancour.”

Verwer says Ludlam is a “very good example of a strange bedfellows” emerging now in political sphere.

And in Ludlam, Verwer says, is a glimpse of the future of politics. The senator’s traction with social media is credited with his turning around almost certain defeat in a recent Senate election, after his “message” to the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, delivered in a near empty Senate chamber, went viral and reached nearly one million viewers.

New mandate

Verwer says this is what he means, the new style of mandates starting to operate outside of the main political groups, aided and abetted by new technology.

“That’s the new wave of mandate and it’s why we don’t need ever to be dispirited by politics.”

Some people say this is a trend that’s unstoppable, he says.

Social media

Driving much of the change is social media, which is taking on the role of mainstream media, he says.

“It’s temporary but they have an important role to play with some of the instant mass movements we’ve seen.”

But can social media manufacture and drive the agenda?

“Would the Russian Revolution have occurred faster if Lenin had a Twitter account?” he answers. “Probably not.

“I think social media can act as a lightning rod but it’s less likely to act as a tipping point.

“The movement needs to be already there. And the energy harnessed because of this instant technology.”

It actually creates new social mores, he says.

“A playpen of rancour and gossip at the speed of light.”

Sustainability – the word

Speaking of the rapidity of social trends, we ask him what he thinks of the ennui with the word “sustainability” that is purportedly seeping though the industry? People report they’re bored with the word and are a seeking a new one to explain what they do.

“Are people bored with the word ‘love’ or bored with the word ‘freedom’? Sustainability is an essentially contestable concept; like good and evil and it’s valuable to have that debate and discussion.

“But it makes no sense to treat it as fashion, like Lady Gaga, needing to move onto the next titillation.”

Gift for words

So Verwer has a gift for words, frighteningly so, according to those who have been on the wrong end of his razor-sharp wit.

New gig

So how will use those skills at his new gig at APREA.

Here, Verwer’s patch will now be global. He will have significant power to influence one of the most important industries on the planet, capable of slowing climate change and stimulating the rollout of greater sustainability through the entire region.

As Verwer told a gathering of the Green Building Council board when he left, this is the Asian century and it’s the urban century.

(Already, we’ve learnt, some Australian green businesses are jumping ship to avoid the local toxic political climate and capitalising on another climate in Singapore that has open arms.)

At the Green Cities 2014 conference in Melbourne in March, the president of the Singapore Green Building Council Ng Eng Kiong was poignant in relating the massive challenges that Singapore faces, and also his country’s determination to survive.

In view of this, The Fifth Estate says that perhaps Verwer can use this outstanding opportunity to take the green building agenda with him.

Verwer also happens to mention his new gig will have one of the biggest concentrations of capital in the world. So for good measure, we add that The Fifth Estate is also on the lookout for benefactors.

Verwer just might be in the right position to find some.

“Noted,” he says.

After all, we add, we know that Verwer is a secret supporter of sustainability. “Why secret?” he bristles, as only Verwer can.

Well, secret as in the way complex politics works. Secret in the Machiavellian sense where some support is displayed publicly and fulsomely, some privately and sometimes not at all. The long game.

And complex in the way of a green building agenda that emerges right in the heart of a conventional property industry. Of course green makes sense, and of course green makes financial sense in the medium to longer term. But there’s major disruption involved too. So sometimes, the momentum might need to be reined in a bit, to let the crowd catch up.

So how influential has Verwer been in the green property industry?

There’s plenty of evidence of the industry’s complexity and there’s also evidence of Verwer pushing back against measures that he felt were too raw, badly planned or that were not consultative enough.

NABERS, for instance, came under sustained attack. And in recent times there has been the pushback to prevent the Commercial Building Disclosure from expanding to offices of less than 2000 square metres (because CBD already captured most of the market and to expand it would be too costly a burden on smaller owners) and to stop it being applied to retail (which is its own unique property sector and can’t call on tenants to drive energy efficiency like that office sector can.)

There was also the recent media release from the Property Council supporting the federal government axing of the Energy Efficiency Opportunities program, which surprised some observers and caused a mixed reaction among leading council members.

In some cases, perhaps Verwer has been right, observers have said. In other cases maybe he’s defended the economic drivers too vigorously.

But on balance, there is no doubt that Verwer is one of the main reasons that Australia’s commercial property sector is hailed globally as leader in green, particularly at the upper end.

Green history

He was there at the beginning of the movement. It was to Verwer that Green Building Council of Australia founders Ché Wall and Maria Atkinson took their fledgling ideas for the GBCA.

His support was crucial. Verwer became a founding board member and was recently honoured with a Life Fellowship.

Long before though, in the late ’90s, he supported a green property agenda. The Property Council’s magazine (which this writer edited for six years) was a “zeitgeist” for the emerging environmental agenda, he says during this interview.

It’s true the magazine was able to carry a large number of articles on climate and sustainability that a lesser CEO might have taken fright with.

During the Green Cities 2014 conference in Melbourne last month, at the closing “wrap”, there was a fraternal moment when GBCA chief executive Romilly Madew underscored how important Verwer was to the success of the movement.

She gave Verwer generous and fulsome praise for his help and support and made it clear he would be badly missed. Despite sometimes vigorous disagreements the two have had, he was always strongly supportive and reliable. In fact, she said the Australian model of collaboration between the Property Council and the Green Building Council was unique to Australia largely because of Verwer.

“He even claims he gave Green Star its name,” Madew said.

Verwer, ever ready with a sharp retort, countered, “This is starting to sound more like an obituary than a send-off.”

But much of this is true. Verwer helped the spread of the movement by establishing sustainability committees throughout his own organisation and then set about influencing the broader sustainability agenda of planning and cities.

He was instrumental in the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, founded in 2004, which brought together the leading organisations in the built environment.

He had a founding role in the Built Environment Meets Parliament summits at Parliament House in Canberra, where Australian Institute of Architects, Green Building Council of Australia, the Planning Institute of Australia and the Property Council of Australia, year after year gathered to capture the attention of politicians under their own roof and focus the spotlight on planning and cities.

Open conversations

As a corollary to his views, Verwer is a strong advocate of open conversations. This brings for reasons of diversity. And you need to have this in order to “become allies in a bigger cause”.

“Without those ideas one is a robot or it’s a case of methodology. It’s more boring.”

“Those ideas come from a huge diversity of places. We never cut off diverse voices especially when we disagree with them.

“We’ve had a lot of fruitcake things said at our events; we’ve never censored any of them.

“People have been anti-growth; we gave them a platform to say their piece. We completely disagreed with them but we provided a forum to say those things.”

So where did these drivers come from? Did he have such ideas in mind or a goal when he joined the Property Council?

Not really, he says.

“I don’t have a teleological approach. There’s not an end point in this journey.”

So no particular agenda?

“There’s never a shortage of agendas,” he says.

Among them sustainability is very important. So too is diversity, he says, and adds that The Fifth Estate should broaden more into diversity issues.

We agree and say we cover women’s issues quite a bit.

But no, he means broader diversity, including minority groups.

Such as the Property Council’s engagement with providing better access in the built environment for disabled people, through Livability Australia, and for Indigenous people.

In recent times the Property Council has championed Career Trackers.

“It’s a personal interest of mine,” Verwer says.

“It’s a brilliant idea to help undergraduate Indigenous people finish degrees as quickly as possible and get into the workforce having experienced internship and understanding the workplace.

“The goal is for members to have these interns and many do.

“This is a great example of an agenda not conceivable a few years ago and it’s important because these people will be the next generation of leaders in the country.”

On women, Verwer says the Property Council has a strong track record – half its executive are female; there are many women on committees and four women are on the board.

“We have a very active program to make sure women are not excluded because of traditional blind spots.”

“I agree with Carol Schwartz, ‘It’s strange than the majority of the world’s brains should be in less than 50 per cent of population.’”

The early days and BOMA

When Verwer joined the Property Council as a young man, property was at the bottom of the pile in terms of desirable profession.

For a start it was then called the Building Owners and Managers Association. Naff.

The job ad, placed by Jill Mason who managed much of the association’s business in those day, called simply for a new gradate. Any graduate.

Verwer was armed with a fresh philosophy degree from the University of Sydney and work experience as a bus conductor and on a rubber plantation in Papua New Guinea.

The timing was good. Long term head of AMP Property, the late Ray Powys, who Verwer had enormous respect for, was at that time trying to reshape the industry as an investment asset class in its own right.

Verwer took charge of the policy department and became a protégé of Powys, but other industry leaders such as Lyn Shaddock continued to be strongly influential.

What came next was the bevvy of talent that the Property Council started to attract, especially around the research department that Verwer headed.

Among the stars was Simon Draper, now executive director, State Productivity at Department of Premier and Cabinet in NSW, and who’s also been a tribunal member of the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal and a managing director and CEO of energy and airports.

There was also Adrian Harrington who stuck to property in a number of roles associated with Greg Paramor and is now head of funds management at Folkestone.

And not the least was Scott Morrison, currently immigration minister, but with his eye on the top job, media speculation has been recently saying.

So during those early days of bonding through hard work – and partying, which sometimes almost the entire office was compelled to be part of – Verwer managed to reshape narrative for the property industry that belied anything that preceded it. It would have made Ray Powys proud.

He re-wrote the industry’s story, so that it could morph from one of colourful “white shoe brigaders” – a reference to the favoured shoe attire of bubble-bust Queensland developers and their compatriots elsewhere accused of building ugly second rate ugly buildings – to one that aspired to far more.

Verwer shifted the focus during the ’90s to the emerging ownership structures of listed trusts and superannuation companies.

Australia’s big commercial holdings and its cities were ultimately owned by the majority of Australians through their superannuation, he told media.

And he pitched cities as the engines of the economy.

Then he started on the politicians.

Years of pilgrimages to Canberra followed – at planning summits that he insisted be held right inside Parliament House, so that the pollies would notice.

Labor eventually listened and appointed Anthony Albanese as Minister for Infrastructure and Transport responsible for cities and established a cities unit.

It must have been a vindicating moment for Verwer the day that Albanese released the State of the Cities report last year and announced it had been downloaded more than three million times.

Of course that’s all a dim memory now with the Abbott government abandoning the cities agenda, the public transport agenda – which was part of ridding the cities of congestion and delivering an efficiency dividend, as Verwer put it – and any other schemes even vaguely related to sustainability.

But today there is a deeper understanding and respect within the property industry for the impact of its work on the environment, the economy and society, but it was Verwer who was one of the first and very few business leaders to “get” the transformational power of the built environment.

He also gets the transformational power of capital, particularly in relation to one’s own home, that’s quite primordial – after all, after food the next most important thing is shelter and place.

Capital, he says, allows you to secure your own place and that can provide a great sense of security. From this an individual can gain great courage, he says.

“It’s possible to take risks; to be entrepreneurial”.

Background

Verwer grew up far from the corridors of power in Sydney and Canberra.

He started early life in the cattle and sheep country around Oberon before moving to a number of places around NSW with his Irish mother, a nurse, and Dutch father, a floor coverer.

The family eventually settled in Sydney, where Verwer attended Waverley Public School, where he was school captain, and later the selective Sydney Boys High then a degree in philosophy from the University of Sydney.

So what future did he dream for himself in those early days? What were the inspirations and drivers?

On politics we draw a blank.

“I’ve never been interested in politics; I was more interested in ideas.”

But there are rumours he was quite left wing in his youth.

Humphrey McQueen did write something along the lines that ‘this capitalist rent seeker seems to have read Marx and Engels’.”

So was he a communist? (fashionable as it might have been in those days.)

“No,” Verwer says, “a Hobbesian, Schopenhauerian, Lockeian, Heraclitian, Hegelian, Nietzschean… maybe…”

Ah the philosophy background (and foreground).

So who was his favourite among these giants of thinking?

“Heraclitus”, he says.

And why?

“Because he was vague in a very sharp manner. He said, ‘You can’t dip your toe in the same river twice.’”

Change is constant.

But on books and writers, Verwer is cagey, preferring to nominate a whole genre – biography – rather than individual books or authors.

Is it too revealing? In the manner of someone’s favourite music and how this can be a personal deal breaker for some people?

In years gone by Verwer was known for including a book question in interviews with prospective employees – not what book they were reading, but what they might choose for him if he was hit by a bus and ended up in hospital.

Which is revealing in itself.

Besides, Verwer says, it’s too hard to nominate favourite books; there are so many he’s liked and he has a library of “thousands” of books.

So that’s in the Kings Cross apartment that we’ve heard contains virtually no furniture?

“There’s a fish tank,” he says.

And yes, the books.

So for the big question – why so long in the same place?

Verwer says it wouldn’t have been right to leave earlier.

During the GFC it might have left people in the lurch. It’s also been a great job, he says.

“It’s better than every other job that I was offered – and I’ve been offered many.”

A big reason the work has been so attractive is that it’s the most interesting of crossroads, where public policy and private capital meet.

“It’s the most stimulating place, where one can achieve the most.

“There’s no better place,” he says.

And at his next job, it will be the same.

In view of the internationalisation of property, the movement of big funds into Australia, and outward investment, so the bigger question is this: is Peter Verwer really leaving the Australian property industry, or merely expanding?

Time will tell.

In the meantime The Fifth Estate will remind him that he has the opportunity to be a strong ally to help rapid-fire expansion of the sustainability agenda in Asia.

Peter?